Friday, September 17, 2010

Miss Shirley Bassey

As the title of this biography suggests it is the young Shirley Bassey that particularly interests author John Williams. This is an exploration of the pre-kitsch, pre-national treasure Bassey - the black and white version.

Digging up the singer's past must have been a tricky business. If one were to organise a Shirley Bassey guided tour of Cardiff there would be little in terms of bricks and mortar to point out. It's not just key buildings that have disappeared but entire streets and districts. And yet the 'Girl from Tiger Bay' mythology still resonates in the Welsh capital. An enduring rags-to-riches tale of a black girl who sang her way out of poverty.

Williams begins his investigation by focusing on Bassey's mother, an extraordinary woman from a mining village in Cleveland. To say that she was unconventional would be an understatement. Her first five children had five different fathers - three of them black. It's no surprise to learn, then, that by 1926 she had gravitated to the one place in Britain where a mixed-race family might have a shot at a decent life - Tiger Bay, Cardiff.

Williams outlines the social history of the area - a tough sailortown, filled with music and brothels, that owed its existence to the world's hunger for coal. A district that experienced a race riot in 1919, but was also a haven for seamen from around the globe. One such sailor who put down roots in this unlikely global village was Bassey's father, a Nigerian stoker.

Unlike many biographers Williams doesn't adopt an omniscient position, stitching together episodes from his subject's life and offering them as some kind of truth. Instead he presents his research to the reader - usually in the form of newspaper cuttings and interviews - before providing us with an analysis. If he is unsure of events he will say so. It's an honest approach and by showing us the guts, as it were, of his investigations he is inviting readers to form their own opinions.

One hitherto unknown fact turned up by Williams is that Bassey's father was convicted of a sex crime and deported. Unknown, at least, outside the tight-knit community of Cardiff Docks. There is, of course, a moral question here of whether the author should reveal such a scandalous titbit. As the information came to light during his researches, I think the revelation is entirely valid. More importantly it sheds light on why the Bassey family moved from Tiger Bay to the white working-class district of Splott. They were escaping the shame.

Despite such inauspicious beginnings Williams engagingly charts Bassey's rise from Splott tomboy to singer in local pubs and clubs (some more legal than others). As an underage singer Bassey would be spirited away from Tiger Bay drinking dens whenever the cops came sniffing around. Showbiz and criminality, of course, have always been natural bedfellows. Later in her career she would be photographed with London gangster Reggie Kray. She even flogged the twins one of her old motor cars.

Bassey's move to London and her rise up the showbiz ladder is a particularly fascinating part of her story. It's a world of smoky cabaret clubs, and small-time Simon Cowells looking for talent to exploit. At each progression in her career the circling sharks and would-be Svengalis get bigger. Bassey, though, was streetwise enough to appreciate her own value as a commodity and was never afraid to fight her corner. Television appearances boosted her popularity further as did a burgeoning recording career.

Suddenly she was famous. These days Bassey is guarded about her private life but in the first flush of success she was remarkably candid in newspaper and magazine interviews. Whilst not quite using them as confessionals she certainly unburdened herself in print. Thus we find her fretting about her bad complexion; confiding that she had been jilted; and offering the world her opinion that she was a bit "weird".

Although she would perform for royalty and even the Kennedys, Bassey also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ken Dodd and Kenny Lynch. Williams has a keen eye for such absurdities. Footnotes and asides point up many comical details such as the Sunday newspaper report on Bassey written in jazzed-up Kerouacian prose. The author, however, never stoops to belittling his subject, and by the end of the biography Williams has moved from an agnostic position to declaring himself a firm admirer of the young Shirley Bassey.

*Miss Shirley Bassey by John L Williams is published by Quercus and is on sale now. Highly recommended.